Systers 30

Systers 30: Laura Downey Witnessed Community’s Growth

By Laura Downey
Chief, Applied Architecture, U.S. Transportation Security Administration

Systers is a close-knit, diverse, and global community for women involved in the technical aspects of computing. Founded in 1987 by Anita Borg together with 12 other women as a small electronic mailing list for women in “systems,” it now comprises more than 6,000 women technologists from more than 60 countries. In honor of Systers’ 30th anniversary, we’re sharing the stories of 30 members who represent the community’s breadth and depth.

When I was in my early 30s and a single parent, I was finishing up my undergrad degree in computer science at Hood College in Frederick, MD. I secured an internship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). I didn’t see a lot of other women working there, so I started searching around. This was during the early days of Usenet — and I found a couple of groups, but wasn’t really participating in them.

Then I found Systers and signed up! This was in the early days when Anita posted. She was her Systers’ keeper. I thought, “Wow, here is a group of women in technology.”

As I got closer to finishing up my degree, I was job hunting, and I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go into government or industry. I was very interested in usability and human-computer interaction. I applied to a position a Microsoft, and I got an interview. I also received great encouragement on Systers. The interview did not go anything like I expected. It was my first trial-by-fire technical interview where I had to program on the spot, which I had no idea was going to happen. I just completely froze.

It was a really good learning experience. I shared that on Systers, and we had discussions about how having to code on the spot is not a real-world example of how you would work.

Systers has always been a place to share, seek advice, and take action! I remember a time when Sony released an ad featuring a popular singer. He was riding around in a car, and he would push a button, and a woman would appear. Then he’d push another button and another woman would appear. It was all about music and Sony, but it just irritated the heck out of me that a technology company was running this ad. What was this harem scenario?

I got on Systers and said, I can’t believe Sony is doing this, and all of a sudden, Systers were calling Sony to protest. I got called by radio stations, I got called by newspapers for interviews, Anita Borg was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about it, and then I got interviewed on Good Morning America. That was really the power of organizing and the power of sticking together. It was so funny — I remember one Syster posting, “I just called and I could hear in the background at Sony, ‘Here comes another one!’” Anita was so supportive — I even called her and talked to her about how to handle this as it got bigger.

As I had more experience with the list, I wanted to get more involved. This was when the first Grace Hopper conference was being discussed, and it was in Washington D.C., so I was really fired up about that. I volunteered, and wound up being the press secretary for the first celebration. I met Anita. I met Telle. I saw Maria Klawe speak. There were 400 women at this conference when usually women were lucky to be 5% of the audience at a technical conference. The sounds and vibe were different — we were actually talking about how to balance your work life while having kids. You never heard that at the other technical conferences I attended. It was just this unbelievable experience.

Then I got busy with life and career, did my master’s in Computer Science and eventually a Ph.D. in information systems. I had not gone to any of the other Hopper conferences for several years, but wound up returning to Washington D.C. in 2008, and I think I had been gone from Systers almost 10 years, and I said, I’ve got to see what’s going on. So I re-engaged, and went to the GHC held in Baltimore and was stunned at the attendance. “Oh my God,” I said. “I cannot believe how much this has grown.” I was just amazed and encouraged and excited all at the same time!

I don’t remember how many Systers we had in ‘92 and ‘93, but I was floored to learn, when I returned, we had 6,000. When I returned it was much more international, which was a good thing. There were so many more people coming into technology, but it was also difficult to realize in those years we’d taken a slide back in terms of the number of women technologists. That makes organizations like Systers even more important right now. It’s not just the pipeline now, it’s if you do get in, why don’t you stay, and why don’t you bring other women along with you? We still have work to do, but for those of us that love technology, we need to encourage and celebrate each other!